Clear History debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Larry David made the right choice. After struggling to make a name for himself as a stand-up comedian, and proving an ill fit for a pair of TV sketch shows, David teamed with Jerry Seinfeld in 1989 to create a show that would define the sitcom for the next decade (and beyond). Seinfeld was the proper vessel for David’s jaundiced perspective, its “no hugging, no lessons” principle making room for the only things that should matter on a show about nothing: story, character, and punchlines. When his transition into writing and directing for the big screen yielded mixed results—the 1998 black-comedy flop Sour Grapes—David made the right choice again, returning to TV to play a fictionalized version of himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm, a looser, more profane variation on the Seinfeld model.
And yet for someone who’s benefitted—creatively and monetarily—from such smart decision making, David’s work betrays a fascination with the wrong choice. The faux pas, the missed opportunity, the road most traveled by the selfish prick: These are the most potent weapons in the comic arsenals of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Even Sour Grapes, misfire that it is, depends on them. The quintessential Larry David script is based in things going from “bad” to “worst” (and then straight on to “rotten”), a formula that depends on well-drawn characters and/or strong performances to give life to the mechanical complexities of the plot.
With a 100 minute running time, there’s not much space for Clear History—a partially improvised piece outlined by David with help from his Seinfeld/Curb Your Enthusiasm cohorts Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer—to give its characters the full three-dimensional treatment. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to, boasting as it does a top-flight cast playing either a version of their public persona or a characters from their past. Though David spends the first portion of the film obscured by a Biblical mane and a mountain-man beard, by the time the action flashes forward 10 years, he’s Larry David by any other name (“George Costanza,” say, when his character claims to have invented the hole in the takeout coffee lid), playing to recognizably cantankerous and rash type. Danny McBride plays his best friend, a salt-of-the-earth of the guy with a salty vocabulary. Jon Hamm plays Don Draper’s self-seriousness and stubbornness for laughs as inventor Will Haney. Michael Keaton, meanwhile, is Cape Cod Beetlejuice.
The other key ingredient in a Larry David comedy is revenge, and Clear History works hard toward blowing that act up to suitably feature-length proportions: David’s character, marketing genius Nathan Flomm (he’s “the man responsible for Edible Arrangements”!), allows a petty disagreement to get in the way of a billion-dollar windfall. His refusal to back the Howard, an electric car shepherded by Haney, makes him both laughingstock and pariah—all this before his hair starts falling out. A decade later, shorn and shaven and living under an assumed name in Martha’s Vineyard, Nathan (now known as “Rolly DaVore”) has restored the balance to his life. But then his former business partner and his wife (Kate Hudson) show up on the island, and Rolly is forced to take drastic actions to both maintain his happiness and get back at the man who indirectly ruined his life.
But Hamm’s Ayn Rand-loving entrepreneur is not the one to blame here, as a clever second act turn makes abundantly clear. To extrapolate from the folksy wisdom of Justified, if Rolly met an asshole when he was Nathan, he met an asshole. But since he keeps meeting assholes after his change of name and address, he’s the asshole. Amid the falling dominoes of Clear History’s plot, the film has fun with the immutability of its protagonist’s personality. The edges of David’s character soften in his transcontinental move, but the prickliness and impulsiveness that drove him to make the biggest mistake of his life are still there—he’s just better at hiding those sides of his personality these days. But when the Haneys show up, Clear History becomes The Strange Case Of Dr. DaVore And Mr. Flomm, and Nathan devolves into a single-minded crank risking exposure in his quest for payback. Whereas his co-conspirators in a plot inspired by Will’s beloved Fountainhead (its movie adaptation, at least) act out of familial pride, Nathan acts out of pure self-interest. For a clue as to where this is headed, keep in mind that the characters of Clear History don’t speak of Ayn Rand’s body of work in the most complimentary of terms.
While Rolly contorts himself back into the form of Nathan, he runs a gauntlet of humiliation that puts him on the bad sides of a once-friendly ex (Amy Ryan in her Wire voice), a Chechnyan thug (Liev Schreiber in Sabretooth facial hair), and the stranger he just can’t stop offending (J.B. Smoove in Curb Your Enthusiasm mode—though slightly exaggerated). Given the way Clear History gins up and uses these interpersonal conflicts, the question must be raised: Why this instead of a new season of Curb? How is an hour and 40 minutes of Nathan Flomm making the wrong choice every step of the way preferable to 10 more episodes of Larry David doing the same for ? You know, aside from a shortened shooting schedule that allowed Clear History to call on a name director (Greg Mottola) and an A-list cast? It’s not like this is cringe-comedy equivalent of Oceans 12, with a millionaire calling his millionaire friends to a millionaire’s playground to fuck around for a few weeks and then call it a movie. Loose as Clear History is, there’s a structure here, and not even the cameos from members of Chicago (who factor into the strangest and most obscene of the objects that get stuck in Nathan’s craw) feel phoned-in.
The inevitable gripe about the movie is that David, Berg, Mandel, and Schaffer refused to stretch their legs when given the chance—but why fix what the fake Larry David hasn’t broken yet? As far as Clear History stands, the model has yet to be exhausted. The revenge ploy Nathan cooks up with Keaton’s barnacle-encrusted Vineyarder bites off a little more than the movie can chew, but it’s justified by the pileup of farcical coincidence and dramatic irony that comprises Clear History’s climax. And there are still a lot of laughs to be wrung from David spotting a taboo, unwritten rule, or everyday nuisance and plowing through it with reckless insistence. Fifteen years after the Seinfeld finale, David and his team still know how to inject the “don’t open that door!” tension of a horror movie into a comedy. There’s still life in the wrong choice, and for now, that remains the right choice.